Updated at 10:22 a.m. on Nov. 30.
If Sarah Palin runs for president in 2012, can she win? Pundits have been buzzing about the possibility since the release of her book two weeks ago, and the itinerary and politics of her book tour suggest she hasn't ruled out a bid. Palin has said she "cannot predict what doors will be open in 2012," but can recent polling provide an answer?
Can Palin Win a General Election? Ultimately, the potential for any Republican in 2012 will depend on voters' future assessments of President Obama. But even if he is vulnerable, Palin will face some huge obstacles, as the polling released in the last few weeks demonstrates.
The biggest barriers involve perceptions of her readiness for higher office. On surveys conducted earlier this month, questions asked by three national polls found significant doubts:
• Only 26 percent of Americans say they think Palin "has the ability to be an effective president," according to the recent CBS News poll; 62 percent believe she does not.
• Only 28 percent say she is "qualified to be president," according to the survey conducted by CNN and the Opinion Research Corporation; 70 percent say she is not.
• Only 38 percent say Palin "is qualified to serve as president," according to the ABC News/Washington Post poll; 60 percent say she is not qualified.
Didn't Barack Obama face similar doubts about his readiness? The Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll tracked a similar question during the last election: "Do you think Barack Obama has the right experience to be president?" The number of registered voters answering in the affirmative started at just 22 percent in December 2006, rose to 35 percent in the summer of 2007 and grew to 51 percent of likely voters on their final survey in early November 2008. So Obama helped convince voters of his qualifications by running for president.
But let's remember that Obama started out as more of a blank slate, while Palin has created a deeper set of impressions. A third of registered voters in that 2006 Fox News survey did not know Obama well enough to answer the experience question, and the number saying Obama lacked the necessary experience never rose above 49 percent on the Fox News surveys. Compare that to the 60 to 70 percent now convinced that Palin is not qualified for the Oval Office.
At the same time, despite doubts about her readiness, majorities of Americans still find things to like about Palin: A CNN/ORC survey of adults conducted in October, for example, found nearly two-thirds (64 percent) willing to describe Palin as a "good role model for women" and a majority (55 percent) finding her "honest and trustworthy." Americans were more closely divided on whether Palin "shares your values" (49 percent say she does) or "generally agrees with you on the issues you care about" (48 percent).
Not surprisingly, Palin scores somewhere in between on favorable ratings and other summary measures. Most surveys find more Americans with an unfavorable impression of Palin than a favorable one, but the most important finding is one reported two weeks ago by the ABC News/Washington Post poll: A majority of Americans (53 percent) say they would "definitely not vote for her."
Can Palin Win the Republican Nomination? Palin faces far lower barriers among Republicans. The same ABC/Post poll finds that 70 percent of Republicans rate her favorably (including 42 percent who rate her very favorably), 61 percent say she is qualified to be president and only 24 percent say they would definitely not vote for her. On the CBS/New York Times survey, 44 percent of Republicans say they would like to see Palin run for president (48 percent would not).
Matthew Dowd, the chief strategist for George W. Bush's campaign in 2004, was right to conclude that Palin's "level of support" in these recent polls "makes her a viable primary candidate" in 2012. In what is likely to be a crowded field, Palin can win in the early state primaries with 35 to 40 percent of the vote. The process then barrels forward to primaries in which, as Politics Daily columnist Walter Shapiro points out, 43 percent of delegates in 2008 were selected on a "winner-take-all" basis.
Many believe that concerns about Palin's electability will lead Republican primary voters to go in a different direction, however. University of Michigan political scientist Brendan Nyhan, for example, notes the strong parallel between doubts about Palin's qualifications and those of former Vice President Dan Quayle. Quayle, he writes, "could never overcome the perception that he was not qualified to be president."
But what really did in Quayle was fundraising. He dropped out in early 1995, "facing a financial squeeze," according to the New York Times. Four years later, as the Wall Street Journal's Paul Gigot put it at the time, Quayle found that he faced rejection from "the people who write $1,000 checks, or $500 checks."
That was then. Should she run in 2012, Palin is positioned to emulate the model Barack Obama employed for fundraising and field organizing: Draw big crowds to rallies, mine those crowds for small donations (by selling tickets), e-mail addresses and phone numbers (via text messaging). That effort helped raise $129 million in 2007, allowing Obama to compete in the early primaries, and translated into a small donor/grassroots army that ultimately defeated Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2008.
Palin's grassroots base holds open the door for her in the 2012 Republican primaries. The lack of money need not slam it shut, as it did for Quayle, but how far she ultimately goes will depend on how successfully she reassures voters beyond that base that she is qualified to be president.
CORRECTION: The original version of this column gave an incorrect name for Politics Daily.